Four Tips for Developing a Regional Sustainability Network

Posted on by Donna Drewes, Sustainable Jersey

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Trying to get the 565 cities and towns of New Jersey to work collaboratively isn’t easy, but sustainability issues are a good way to get the conversation started.  Many sustainability actions, like air and water quality, extend beyond municipal boundaries and can more effectively be planned on a regional scale.  Although Sustainable Jersey currently only certifies individual municipalities, we put great value on regional collaboration.

Working with regional networks that have similar interests has enabled Sustainable Jersey to have widespread coordination, harmonization and impact across New Jersey.  Moving forward, Sustainable Jersey will be developing and implementing long-term capacity strengthening activities through the development of regional hubs.

We have found that although regional programs can reach a wide number of organizations, the collaboration takes time—from relationship building to transfer of ideas and then application.  Here are a few tips/stories from some of our partners and participating municipalities:

Four Tips for Developing a Regional Sustainability Network

1) Hire a County Director of Sustainability

Did you know that Camden County was the first county in the United States to mandate recycling? The county to date has preserved 2,400 acres of open space and has created a series of trailways and bikeways and is now pursuing “Sustainable Camden County,” an initiative that will not only deal with environmental concerns but will help to educate the public about what individuals and businesses can do.

Chris Waldron presenting at the Haddon Heights Green Team’s Community Visioning event

Chris Waldron, LEED AP, is the newly appointed Director of Sustainability for Camden County.  Waldron was first introduced to sustainability issues when he was asked to oversee a sustainability audit at the Philadelphia Zoo where he was a zoo keeper and habitat curator.  After the successful audit, he got his LEED certification and has never looked back.  Now, as Director of Sustainability, he is working on sustainable habitats for people rather than primates.

The creation of the Director of Sustainability position was championed by Camden County Freeholder Jeffrey L. Nash.  “I understood the fact that our county needed someone to provide the vision, strategy and focus for advancing our operational sustainability efforts by working directly with the community,” said Freeholder Jeffrey Nash.  Nash added “Camden County has large cities and small towns with vast geographical differences and contrasting needs.  Now, with Chris, we are working to consolidate and unify the efforts of our municipal Green Teams, so they can take advantage of economies of scale, which will result in more impactful strategies that save money and improve our communities.”

Of Waldron’s many job duties, he is working with the 37 mayors in Camden County to assist the towns with their Sustainable Jersey certification.  He provides the on-the-ground support and cheerleading that towns often need to move forward on sustainability actions.  Waldron said, “It’s exciting to see how people embrace the Sustainable Jersey program.  By attending Green Team meetings in different towns, I am able to share best practices and suggest ways that groups can work together to have a bigger impact.”  He is currently working with Green Teams in Camden, Collingswood, Haddon Heights, Pennsauken, Runnemede, Somerdale, Stratford, Voorhees and Winslow.

In Camden County there are 5 certified towns, 17 that are registered and working on the program and 15 that are not yet signed up.  Waldron added, “It’s not always easy to get towns to work together.  Some towns have friendly but competitive relationships with neighboring towns and don’t want to share ideas.”  But this month, Waldron was excited about his participation in the Haddon Heights Green Team’s Community Visioning event.  Silver-certified Cherry Hill Township shared their success stories at the workshop, and Waldron made sure that representatives of the Haddonfield and Pennsauken Green Teams attended the meeting to see the value of a visioning session for setting sustainability goals.

In late spring, a new website will be launched (SustainableCamdenCounty.org) that will provide resources for towns, including the draft five-year Camden County Sustainability Plan which will serve as a model for other counties.

2) Share Best Practices and Resources

The benefit of sharing best practices is to learn from others and avoid reinventing the wheel.  To be successful, many organizations and Green Teams are abandoning their ideas of information hoarding in order to participate in knowledge sharing.

HART Commuter Information Services is a non-profit that promotes sustainable transportation in Hunterdon County by working with commuters, employers and communities.  HART’s Sustainable Hunterdon initiative provides local municipalities with free assistance as they pursue Sustainable Jersey certification.  In addition to staff support, HART provides an e-newsletter to community Green Teams. The newsletters offer information and resources to help communities achieve the actions required for certification.

Frenchton "Green Awareness through Film" Series

Tara Shepherd, Executive Director of HART Commuter Information Services, said “Green Teams can often get overwhelmed as they attempt to take on various action Items.  In many cases, HART can help because we can facilitate conversations between various groups in the community that are already doing things that could be documented for points.”  As part of that facilitation role, HART supports the use of shared resources.  The organization surveyed municipalities last year to see what they were interested in pursuing.  Overwhelmingly, the response was, “Community Outreach & Education” and “Green Challenges.”

But the Green Teams were unsure how to get started.  HART worked with towns and came up with some innovative ideas.  HART acquired the public screening rights to several highly motivating environmental films. The films are available for loan, along with a projector and screen, free of charge, to any Hunterdon municipality interested in hosting a screening. The screenings provide a great way to launch a Green Challenge or to kick-off a Green Fair.  Each activity earns 10 points toward Sustainable Jersey certification.  Additionally, HART provides meeting facilities so that Green Teams can meet and discuss collaborative efforts.  The Flemington Green Team was recently able to share their Sustainable Jersey experiences with High Bridge.  Also, Sustainable Hunterdon offers Green Teams use of their customized online tracking/surveying tool for initiatives like green challenges.

Sustainable Jersey municipalities throughout the state can get support from their local Transportation Management Association (TMA).  TMAs can assist by providing free programs that align with certification categories including transportation fairs, onsite bicycle and pedestrian safety programs for children and adults, anti-idling awareness campaigns and “Complete Streets” programs.

To find the TMA serving your county visit: Transportation Management Association Council of New Jersey.

3) Identify Areas of Common Concern and Success Stories

For progress to be made in regional collaborations, participants should agree on common issues and interests.  Generally, municipalities will have some issues and interests in common and others that are of concern to only one town.  Creating clarity of purpose involves establishing and consolidating links among participants while creating a shared vision and purpose.

In the fall of 2011, the Glen Rock Green Team decided to implement an innovative strategy to foster a regional approach to sustainability. They hosted the first-ever Northwest Bergen County Environmental Commission (NWBCEC) and Green Team Summit.  Representatives from seven municipalities attended and based on the enthusiastic first meeting, set up a schedule to meet quarterly.  The second meeting attracted 50 representatives from Environmental Commissions, Green Teams and Shade Tree Committees from across Bergen County. These two events were the first of their kind in northern New Jersey.

Prior to the Green Summit, the Glen Rock Green Team surveyed participants to identify their areas of greatest concern, potential topics to cover and success stories.  Based on responses, the group identified three success stories that were shared at the event and key topics to discuss.  A key element of the event was allowing each participant to introduce themselves to the group; the intent was to initiate relationship building.  At the conclusion of the meeting, all participants enthusiastically agreed to be placed on a joint mailing list, to create a NWBCEC LinkedIn group for ongoing communications and to meet quarterly to continue the dialogue.  After the meeting, the Glen Rock Green Team sent out an email with links to resources which had been shared and an invitation to join the LinkedIn group.

4) Provide Access to Experts and Resources on Hot Topics

Many successful regional collaborations can be traced back to an issue or hot topic that served to unite participants.  The structure and relationships gained in working around the pressing initiative are then used for collaboration on other issues.

For example, shortly after the Glen Rock Green Team Green Summit, Northern New Jersey suffered a snow and ice storm on Halloween weekend which caused extensive loss of mature trees and tree limbs, extensive damage to homes, as well as prolonged power outages, road closures and school closures. Residents with mature trees on their properties were afraid of future damage.  In consultation with the Glen Rock Shade Tree Advisory Committee liaison to the Green Up Glen Rock Team, the group identified “Vibrant Communities and Urban Forests: Mapping a Strategy to Save our Trees” as the topic for the next event.

The group invited two guest speakers. The first was a representative of the New York Restoration Project, New York’s lead community greening organization and sponsor of Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC Million Trees initiative.  She presented the results of a recently released national report on Urban Forests.  The second speaker was the NJ Community Forester.  He gave practical information on community forests, their role in stormwater management and management of trees during extreme weather conditions.

Due to the caliber of the speakers, the group publicized the event to all Environmental Commissions, Shade Tree Committees and Green Teams in Bergen County with the help of the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions and Sustainable Jersey.

Over 50 participants attended, including the entire Upper Saddle River Environmental Commission.  One issue that was raised by participants was development of shade tree management ordinances, as many Bergen County communities have recently passed ordinances and others, such as Glen Rock and Ridgewood, were in the process of developing or passing ordinances and were very interested in sharing information with other communities.

This served to build a Bergen County network and strengthen communication among the participating organizations.  Members are now sharing information via the mailing list and the LinkedIn Group.  With information gathered from this event, the Glen Rock Shade Tree Advisory Committee was able to testify before the Glen Rock School Board about its plan to remove over a dozen mature oak trees to make room for two artificial turf fields.  The Committee also drafted a Shade Tree Management Ordinance that the Borough Council is close to passing.  Glen Rock plans to build on this on foundation by continuing the series of events and strengthening communication.

They say that those who learn to collaborate prevail!  We look forward to rolling-out our regional hubs to strengthen Green Team efforts across New Jersey.  Check the website for progress on our regional collaboration strategy, and comment here to tell us your collaboration tips.

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Sustainable Jersey staff and partners are regular contributors to the Dodge blog

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